People in Lexington love a good meal. As our restaurant scene continues to expand, that seems pretty obvious. But thanks to a great resurgence and evolution of the beloved food truck, we are finding out that a restaurant doesn’t have to have walls, tables and chairs to offer up a plate of food packed with flavor.
While a handful of food trucks have gained popularity since popping up on Lexington’s streets a few years ago, some have expanded their scope to have their cuisine not just offered on four wheels, but also behind four walls. Such is the case for the Athenian Grill, a place where outstanding Greek cuisine is the norm and its new brick-and-mortar location only seems to confirm its popularity with Lexington foodies.
Before the Athenian Grill opened in its new permanent location in the heart of Chevy Chase, the idea merely existed as a possible dream of owner and native Greek Ilias Pappas.
He immigrated to the states for his education, attending Lexington Community College and UK before heading further south to Florida International University. While he worked in the technology field at one point, he eventually found his way back to food and worked in numerous restaurants in Miami, including Carpaccio and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise given his native culture.
“It’s like that ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ movie. We talk about food all the time,” Pappas said.
The people in his family who shared Pappas’ passion were his aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou. He helped them with their catering business while he was in college, and when his uncle passed away, he moved back to Lexington permanently to be with his family and to eventually help fulfill a shared dream.
First came the food truck and catering business, which catered to parties as large as 300 while becoming an appetizing sight at Thursday Night Live as well as local breweries Country Boy Brewing and West Sixth Brewery.
Now, Athenian Grill, which opened this past summer at the former location of Belle’s Bakery, offers an expanded Greek menu with a bit more ambience. The quaint, two-story space has a trio of white tables and blue chairs on the floor with exposed ceilings and naked light bulbs connected to snaky silver pipes above your head. The upstairs is where a single, reservation-only table sits where Pappas personally serves you a multi-course Greek meal family style.
That being said, the downstairs is where all the action is, as people pile in during lunch and dinner rushes with a line out the door. It’s for good reason if you’ve tried the food.
They have many traditional Greek dips served with pita bread like creamy tzatziki, scordalia (potato with olive oil and garlic) and classic hummus. They also have a roasted red pepper hummus that’s fantastic, with a flavorful kick of pepper and garlic right up front and a texture you’ll have a hard time beating.
Many people come in for a classic gyro, which can be served with lamb, chicken, souvlaki (grilled pork tenderloin skewer), sausage or vegetarian. While I won’t argue with that choice, you would be doing your self a disservice if you didn’t try one of their traditional Greek specialties.
The spanikopita, Greek spinach pie with phyllo dough and feta, was picked dry before my visit ended, and I saw plenty of patrons go for the Cypriot meatballs, with ground beef, veal, onion and paprika. Some of the restaurant’s heartier dishes will certainly be ideal as the temperature drops, whether it’s the pastitsio (Greek lasagna) with baked pasta and ground beef or the Greek beef stew, with grass-fed beef that falls apart on the fork served in tomatoes sauce served with roasted potatoes. My personal favorite was the mousaka, with sautéed eggplant layered with beef and lamb in a béchamel sauce that was brimming with fresh herbs.
Big things come in small packages when it comes to Athenian Grill’s fresh-baked desserts, which include classics like flaky and rich baklava, the super moist melomakarona with honey and a welcome bit of spice and the kourabiedes (Greek wedding cookie) with nuts and coated in a downpour of powdered sugar.
Pappas’ dream has certainly become even better than he expected with his new restaurant while the food truck and catering side of his business continues to grow. In addition to emphasizing bringing an authentic taste of his Greek heritage in dishes with fresh, local ingredients, he thinks there’s more that accounts for the Athenian Grill’s popularity.
“The key to our success is that we try our best every day,” Pappas said. “We want to make sure everybody walks out of here happy.”